Theme Camp Isolation Experiments: Week One

Last week I wrote about the way in which we can carry Burning Man culture forward in a time of isolation by finding ways to turn our solitude into theme camps that can be shared. To the extent I learn anything about this process, I’ll be sharing it here.

The first two design elements I suggested both for theme camps on the playa and at home are Immediacy (don’t pretend to be having an experience that you’re not; start from where you are) and Radical Self-expression (not just for yourself, but for others: how do you invite others to be Radically Self-expressive while having this experience?).

Something I suggested last week, but feel is even more important now, is to not try to pretend we are creating an adequate substitute for in-person experiences through digital activities. We’re not. Some futurists have argued with me that eventually the digital environment will be able to wholly satisfy our physical needs…for presence, touch, and all the rest. I think that’s delusional, but we can both agree the digital can’t do it now.

Trying to replace what we’ve lost with digital and distance experiences will simply lead to less satisfying distance experiences. Trying to utilize the technological realm to its fullest, on its own terms, will lead to more satisfying, amazing, experiences. They’ll be different experiences. They won’t replace what we’ve lost, but they’ll be more extraordinary on their own terms. Again, let’s start with where we are, not with where we wish we could be.

For myself and, of course, your experience will be your own I’ve found there’s often a quick point of diminishing returns to virtual group hang-outs. I go in and get a rush of energy and satisfaction from seeing people I like and jumping into conversation, or even just lurking a bit while the familiar voices fill my living room. But often that experience passes fairy quickly, and the virtual hang-out starts taking away what it previously gave. Sometimes I’ve left them feeling more drained and isolated than I was when I came in, despite that initial feeling of euphoria.

Here are some of the most rewarding experiences among the interesting experiments I have seen or been a part of this past week ones that did not cause that effect, had me engaged and happy all the way through, and feeling better afterwards.

Intrusive Bartending

I didn’t get to participate in this one, I only heard about it, but it’s such genius that I had to pass it on. A bartender, now out of work for obvious reasons, preserved her craft by opening a video conference “bar,” where she serves drinks by having the patrons show her (and everyone else there) around their liquor cabinets and kitchens, and then she instructs them on how to make a drink based on the materials they have. She talks them through it, has them adjust it to taste, and then listens to them share their problems as they drink. Then she goes on to the next person while other patrons talk or watch. A Venmo account is linked in the chat, so that people can tip if they are inclined.

This is genuinely participatory, genuinely expressive, sharing and communal, and looking around someone’s home can be quite intimate. It’s a fantastic model for the kind of experiences we’re trying to create.

Narrating Ordinary Experiences

This is just stupid fun, but it gets incredibly silly very quickly, and sometimes offers a surprisingly intimate look at the mundane lives of your friends. Get a group of people together, at least one of whom has basic household tasks to do (but isn’t in a hurry). The person doing the household task say, cooking dinner is pinned to the main panel of the video call, while another person on the conference narrates what that person is doing.

It can be in the style of a nature documentary (“And so the grad student savagely attacks her natural enemy, broccoli, with a cutting knife. Though brutal and savage, this is simply nature’s way of ensuring that broccoli does not use up excess shelf space in the fridge, and also of making soup.”)  It can be in sportscaster form (“Look at that downward chopping motion! She’s going for the three-point play!  That’s a daring move, everybody knows the farmers market carrots use a triangle offense and…she makes it!  That’s gonna be a highlight clip of the day for sure!”) It can be in the form of a political panel discussion…it can be in the form of a TED talk…. Whatever the particular style, just narrate it. (And of course, some of these forms lead to multiple people getting to narrate collaboratively.)

Then, when the task is finished, it’s somebody else’s turn.

The Wheel of Zoom!!!

Wheel of Zoom during its test phase

Okay, while the fundamental premise is Theme Camp 101, this one’s still gonna take a little explaining.

Five years ago I had an interactive art project a small, person-sized one I could carry around with me and I brought it out at an event. Long story short, a group of people gathered around my art project, and it became the center of absurd fun and playful mischief, and that group of people still gets together, in various permutations, whenever it can. But of course, now, how would we do that? We can’t physically get together, and my art experience really needed to be in person to make it work

We could have just hung out together, sure, but having something artful and playful at the center of our interactions had always helped create truly magical reunions. We didn’t want to lose that.

So for our first video reunion, one of our members jury-rigged the jankiest wheel of fate you’ll ever see.  It was made of cardboard, an old pizza box, a skateboard, a zip tie … I dunno what the hell else he threw in there, but, you get the idea. It worked, but barely, and the ways in which it barely worked were hilarious.

The wheel had 12 open spots, and when there was a quorum of members on our video call, we began filling it in.  The options, decided and approved by the group, were:

  • Sing!
  • Confess!
  • Tell a story!
  • Embarrass another member of the group (your choice who)
  • Read a poem
  • Ask a question (of one other group member, or of the whole group for everyone to answer)
  • Describe your Signature Cocktail, tell us why, and share a story you associate with that drink.
  • Two truths and one lie
  • Put on a costume from your closet
  • Weep and Strip (at least one piece of clothing must be removed as you cry)
  • Share a fear
  • Instill a fear (make someone else afraid of something).

Why these? Because they seemed like fun, and because some of them involve genuine unpredictability and risk. Far from knowing how these things would turn out, we honestly had no idea what would happen. At all.

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

It’s also relevant to note that the process of setting the options was a group decision, done together that setting of expectations and consequences was part of the experience. (Okay, not if you showed up too late, but, hey late has its own consequences.) Creating the container together is not generally something we associate with the “theme camp experience” on playa we generally create something for people to come to, ready made. But in these, much smaller, circumstances, the act of coming together to create what you’re about to experience is itself the kind of experience we are trying to create.

(Say it with me: “Participation” and “Communal Effort” are design elements.)

Once the wheel was complete, we went around the video call, and everyone took a turn telling the person whose house it was in how they wanted it spun (to the right or to the left, fast or slow, what appendage to use…). Then they took their fate and ran with it.

We also realized that it’s possible to have someone spin for the entire group: whatever it lands on is a task we all undertake. This seemed to work best when used sparingly as part of a mix of individual spins and collective ones.

The distribution of the tasks was deliberately varied: some are oriented towards creating conversation (ask a question, confess!, share a fear); some are oriented towards activity (Put on a costume from your closet, sing!); and some are absurdity for absurdity’s sake (particularly “weep and strip” we had no idea what that was or how that was going to go). And some are designed to trade on the knowledge and connection that members of this group have over time (embarrass another member of the group; instill a fear).

Lessons Learned

I think diversity of challenges is far more important in designing a “virtual theme camp” than it is in a theme camp on the playa. In Black Rock City, we have nothing but options. Theme camps often work best when they’re specialized doing one thing (or style of thing) very well, and people can stay for as long as it speaks to them and then move on to something else.

But we don’t have that kind of virtual infrastructure (at least not yet), and it’s much harder to just wander out and discover something. So, the more a digital “theme camp” has only one thing on offer, the more it will risk people staying not because they’re authentically engaged but because they don’t think they have other options. Variety, keeping people on their toes, not knowing which kind of struggle they’re about to engage in, is a way of also keeping them authentically engaged.

The fact that many of these challenges were genuinely challenging also mattered, I think: we feel more connected to each other and to our own lives when we are able to rise to an occasion. Not everyone has to be challenged every time, but the experience of someone living up to a genuine challenge is a far better way to spend time, gives one a sense that we are really living, or at least still alive, in a way than just passing the time on video chat does not.

This is why, in theme camp design, it’s better to organize around some kind of interactive art experience than to only drink together. Chilling out is great, and we will always have that, it’s not going away. But an interactive art experience opens the possibility of more. And right now, in our time of isolation, we need more. So we must reach for it.


Top photo: Temple of Transition by International Arts Mega Crew, 2011 (Photo by Marley Windham-Herman)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

13 Comments on “Theme Camp Isolation Experiments: Week One

  • Anselm says:

    Wheel of Zoom ingredients:

    1) bicycle wheel, scavenged from the side of the road in drunken shenanigans weeks earlier.

    1) skateboard deck you built back in college and have been dragging around for almost two decades because “it might come in useful some day”. It did.

    1) Pizza box, cut into little scraps, as the signs. Recommend eating pizza first, but you do you.

    1) Indicator arrow, cut out a shoe box and covered with red tape. Use more of the same to raise the arrow off the box so it can overhang the wheel. We’re god damn professionals here, and have standards to uphold.

    1) zip tie poking into the spokes to slow and eventually stop the wheel with a delightful clanking sound. If you’re clever, you align this with the cards so the arrow never stops between cards. I am not clever and did not achieve this.

    1) pie tin so you don’t need to drill a hole through your skateboard.

    4) carpentry clamps. 3 to hold the pie tin, 1 to hold the zip tie to clamp #2.

    1) ratchet strap salvaged from the bag of old ratchet straps a former coworker put on the free shelf.

    1) incredibly janky bike rack you bought at the Reno Walmart out of desperation some years ago and have tripped over ever since.

    Duct tape. Masking tape. Paper from that shoe box to hide the jankiest of the janky bits behind the wheel. Whiskey.

    Report comment

  • Jaqualian says:

    I’ve been in isolation for 2 weeks. I had symptoms of the flu and so I wanted to be extremely careful. The symptoms passed and I’ve tested negative for the Corona Virus!

    For those in isolation and who have always wanted a pet, this is a wonderful time to do so. I finally adopted the cutest potbellied pig in the world. I wish I could show you pictures of him. I now have someone to share my time and love with. Our love has been growing day by day, minute by minute, and we’ve finally advanced to the next level. I’m so happy and satisfied. But this all comes with a big risk and I tested positive for Swine Flu. He didn’t use a condom the last time and now I have it. But I still love him and he loves me. We can stay in isolation together forever, until he becomes too big for my apartment. Then he’s dinner.

    Report comment

  • HR Puff ‘n’ Stuff says:

    Pretending to not have an experience is impossible. Apparently you still feel to have an experience, even though you apparently feel as though you’ve chosen not to feel to have an experience – experience just happens…like right now! – it’s just that your apparent self happens to be aware of it…sometimes…apparently.

    Report comment

    • Jennifer E Swarts says:

      Best comment I’ve read in a very long time… a kind of poetry.

      Report comment

      • ✌ ❤️ says:

        Thanx! – Peace, Love and Good Happiness Stuff

        Report comment

      • svensson says:

        Burning man – alike anti-culture isn` it!
        I heard about forged songs! believe it or not about
        a woman singing in arabic – where the English was forged for her – which she did not understand years ago – something unbelievable like ” I love my children, to burn”! The arab or egyptian went to prison and is likely out again! I saw ISIS – Islamic state etc, burns children and victims alive on the streets nowadays!
        How can such barbarism be free? And what is this of Yours about?

        Report comment

  • Jennifer E Swarts says:

    Dear Teacher, Interesting article. Some food for thought and a useful take-away… Must add #participation to my #immediacy art idea… Fuck … How… suppose that’s exactly the point of our now newly minted online #Afroboratory. Guess I’ll have to figure it out. I’ll keep you updated.

    In the meantime, could you be so kind as to explain to me; just a poor Veteran Afrikaburner… who hasn’t ever been to the Mother Ship (as I call your desert); why would fellow burner’s want to design a game/art/theme camp where you do this:
    And some are designed to trade on the knowledge and connection that members of this group have over time (embarrass another member of the group; instill a fear).

    I don’t get it. Why would you want to instill fear?

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Report comment

    • Ted says:

      Fear has been an important part of my Burning Man experience. I was fearful if going out there in the harsh environment with no big box store to run to – what if I forgot something? I’m not cool, will they really accept me? But I got over it and went, and was welcomed and keep going back. And since then challenging my comfort has been something I try do every year, from human car wash to playing a character at an art project.

      Also fear is part of what makes the gamble of a wheel fun – there are some things you don’t want to land on and maybe some you do. Forcing yourself to go along with the one you don’t want may be a way you grow. Or at least in being vulnerable, open yourself to connection.

      There’s also the fear when climbing an art project like 27 Stone, or the Car-kebab but when you’re done, you now have something to share and connect with others about. You’re never more in the moment than when your personal safety is at risk.

      Report comment

  • LadyBee says:

    Thanks, Caveat! and for those of you interested in etymology:
    “Jury-rigged means something was assembled quickly with the materials on hand. … Jerry-rigged is a variant of jury-rigged, and it may have been influenced by jerry-built. While some people consider it to be an incorrect version of jury-rigged, it’s widely used, especially in everyday speech.”

    Report comment

    • Jack Hall AKA Tripod says:

      Actually, the original term was “Jerry rigged” which was derived from the fact that, during WWII, there were more “Jerry cans” (the steel cans which were fastened on the backs of Jeeps to carry extra gas) than there were Jeeps. Because of this, there were MANY extra Jerry cans to be found in the quartermaster’s store. Because there were piles of Jerry cans to be had for the asking, ingenious GI’s found ways of using these cans to create bar-b-que grills, ovens, tables, chairs, tables, musical instruments, and who knows what else. Because of this incredible burst of creativity was evident all over the world wherever and whenever GI inventiveness combined with the surplus supply of Jerry cans, the phrase “Jerry rigged ” was born.

      APRIL FOOLS! Although the above sounds credible (and may even be true because “art imitates reality”), it is completely a creation of my deranged mind!
      I hope I entertained you and maybe even created a chuckle or two!
      Jack. AKA Tripod

      Report comment

    • Cake says:

      Jury rigged/jerry rigged is a sailing term actually and never originally referred to Germans at all.

      Report comment

  • Hunnie says:

    If we utilize a clickable map once participants get through Gate and Greeters, Let’s have a What When Where given out with NO links to the “zoom room.” You can get a vague address per usual and go find your event on the map. This provides an opportunity for immediacy and adventure

    Report comment

    • David says:

      Who says there are gates and greeter at all?

      The initial transition from Baker Beach to the playa must have been a strange one. I imagine some people talked of bringing a truck load of sand so that it could be like a “real” Burning Man (not).
      We are being presented with the most mazing opportunity to take Burning Man to new heights!! Burning Man has just gone INFINITE!

      There is no limit to real estate, ticket, WAP, kitchen size. All physicality has been decentralized. Everyone who has even been can participate. The consciousness that is Burning man can graduate and be witnessed by the entire planet.

      Everyone burns differently but in our camp we are intentionally prototyping new ways for humans to interrelate. Those explorations have been so useful in this pandemic. That is an art worth showcasing, replicating and broadcasting. But you do you. It takes everybody owning their agency to make the big old world work.

      Don’t allow ourselves to be limited by what was…this is a whole new rodeo with same old clowns.

      Report comment

  • Comments are closed.